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The Battles of Marston Moor and Naseby

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, War on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about the Battles of Marston Moor and Naseby originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

Marston Moor, picture, image, illustration

The Battle of Marston Moor by John Millar Watt

The first battles of the English Civil War had shown how little discipline there was in the Royalist and Parliamentary armies. But only Oliver Cromwell seems to have really tried to organise a more disciplined, modern fighting force. He and his men came from eastern England and they were to be the pattern which Parliament’s later, and extremely successful, New Model Army followed.

Such reforms had, however, hardly begun when, early in 1644, a large Scottish army marched south in support of England’s Parliament. The two countries were still separate, although they had shared one king ever since James VI of Scotland came to the throne of England as James I.

This invading Scottish army now helped the Parliamentary forces besiege the ancient walled stronghold of York. Prince Rupert, the dashing but unpopular Royalist cavalry commander, was determined to relieve the city. So, in June, Rupert’s army crossed the Pennine mountains: and on 1st July the Parliamentarians outside York left the siege and marched against the prince.

Prince Rupert was a fine general and he easily outmanoeuvred his enemies. To reach York, however, he had divided his army, and now he found that the Royalists in the city were not keen on fighting the Parliamentarians immediately. Strangely enough there were similar disagreements inside his enemies’ camp, which lay eight kilometres to the west at Marston Moor.

When at last the Anglo-Scottish army decided to move, they were almost caught by the prince as they were in the process of changing their positions. This was Rupert’s great opportunity, but for some reason he missed it. Instead of attacking, he allowed both armies to prepare for a set-piece battle in which the Parliamentarians greatly outnumbered the Royalists.

As usual most of the cavalry was on the flanks of these armies, although Prince Rupert did keep a large reserve of horsemen behind his infantry. Rupert also placed a line of musketeers along a ditch that separated the forces. Their dangerous task was to disorganise the enemy if the Parliamentarians decided to attack that same day.

In the 17th century it was very unusual for anyone to start a battle so late in the afternoon, but attack was just what the Parliamentarians did – at about 7 o’clock in the evening. As the Royalists were preparing supper, Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry suddenly smashed into Prince Rupert’s right flank.

The prince himself led his reserves against this assault, but his men were soon driven from the field. Cromwell was wounded, while the prince, having lost his horse, was forced to hide in a bean field. Another cavalry action on the far side of the battle, however, brought a Royalist success and their horsemen were even able to plunder the enemy’s baggage train.

Meanwhile a brutal infantry struggle had spread along the centre of the battlefield. In some places the Parliamentarians won the advantage. But in most areas they and their Scottish allies suffered heavily, particularly from Royalist cavalry at the eastern end of the line.

All three leading Parliamentary generals now abandoned the scene. Cromwell, however, was not among them. Whole regiments were also fleeing from both armies as night closed in.

Cromwell’s cavalry now rode round behind the Royalist lines and suddenly charged into the victorious but unsuspecting enemy horsemen on the eastern flank. Now the discipline of the Parliamentarian cavalry proved its worth. Instead of pursuing their defeated foes they formed up for another charge, this time against the Royalist infantry. These unfortunate foot soldiers now found themselves caught between enemy infantry and enemy cavalry. Many continued to fight bravely, particularly the Earl of Newcastle’s Regiment of Whitecoats, but their battle was lost.

Marston Moor made and broke reputations. Prince Rupert was no longer the invincible young cavalier, while a new star was rising in the Parliamentary ranks. His name was Oliver Cromwell.

One more major battle had to be fought before Parliament won its war against the king. By the spring of 1645 the New Model Army was ready. It was not yet fully trained but it was led by two outstanding generals, Fairfax and Cromwell.

After much marching, pursuit, ambush and retreat, the two armies met near Naseby in Northamptonshire on 14th June, 1645. The Parliamentarians took up their positions on a hill, despite the fact that this was not the strongest site in the area: Cromwell had, in fact, advised against occupying another hill on the grounds that it was so strong that the enemy might never advance at all.

Parliament wanted Prince Rupert and King Charles I to attack, and this was exactly what the Royalists did. Unfortunately for the king, his army was not only outnumbered, but was also out-generalled.

The Battle of Naseby began with a general assault by Charles I’s army. On the king’s right some regiments of Royalist cavalry under Prince Rupert ran a gauntlet of gunfire from Parliamentary dragoons who had formed up behind a hedge. Nevertheless, Rupert’s troopers charged on and crashed into Colonel Ireton’s Parliamentary horsemen, most of whom fled. As usual, the dashing Rupert dashed after them, as far as Naseby village. Here his men tried to loot the enemy’s baggage train but were humiliatingly driven off by a handful of guards.

Surprisingly the infantry battle at the centre of both armies was now also going in favour of the king’s outnumbered troops. Seeing this, the Parliamentary dragoons who had earlier peppered Prince Rupert now remounted and charged into the right flank of the Royalist infantry. At the same time Cromwell’s heavier horsemen hit them from the left flank. In complete contrast to Prince Rupert’s men, Cromwell’s troops, having driven off their cavalry foes did not pursue them. Instead they immediately reformed and re-entered the main battle. Discipline once again won the day.

While the Royalist infantry were being attacked from three sides, King Charles and the rest of his reserves prepared to make a final stand. This was, however, a half-hearted effort, and after one volley from those Parliamentary dragoons, most of the remaining Royalists fled.

By losing the Battle of Naseby, King Charles I lost the war. He also lost the royal camp and with it many secret letters in which he had written about hiring foreign mercenaries and Irish Catholics – letters that would one day cost him his head.

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